Sperm whale candles – light from a dark place

No. 10

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The whaling industry was a source of enormous, rapid wealth in early Van Diemen's Land. Oil was harvested from whale blubber by boiling the fat in tri-pots, with the oil being siphoned off into casks for sale. As much as three tons of oil could be taken from one whale, and it was the primary source of interior lighting in colonial Tasmania, being used in lamps and candles.

These candles, produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, are made from spermaceti – the oil collected from the head cavity of a sperm whale.

Sperm oil was highly valued because of its clear, white colour and the fact that it produced a high-quality candle which burned brightly, and with little odour. Candles like these would have been far more expensive than the cheaper tallow candles, which produced a poorer light, sputtered, guttered and smelt. They were also more resistant to heat, meaning that the candles themselves were not likely to bend or warp in warmer weather.

J.C. & J. Fields were candle and soap makers, of 15 Upper Marsh, Lambeth, London. Founded in 1642, the company had a long tradition as candle makers and wax chandlers, being listed as wax chandlers to the Prince Regent in 1820. The company diversified into soap production in the mid-1840s – a shrewd business move as the market for candles declined.

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